MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Captain Abdul Mack has learned a lot about himself and leadership throughout his 20 years serving in the Marine Corps. His first combat deployment took place when he was a Staff Sgt. here; he realized what he needed to do to become the leader he had always strived to be. Now a commissioned officer, Mack, the adjutant for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, uses the tools he has learned in his career to lead and inspire his Marines.
In this interview, he shares how his leadership has developed and what it takes to be a good leader.
Q: What inspired you to join the Marine Corps?
A: After high school, I had quite a few friends that were joining. I talked to them, kind of hearing their views, and a lot of them made sense and were in line with my thinking. The opportunities the Marine Corps created and the opportunities to serve your country [drew me in.]
Q: What influenced your decision to switch from enlisted to officer?
A: I noticed that as you move up the ranks you have to let your subordinate Marines, the ones behind you, have the opportunity as well. That’s why the Marine Corps has been so successful. We train each other; train the trainer. As I moved up, I felt less fulfilled at the billet and rank that I was at. I had great NCOs, they were getting things done and there was less for me to do. I’m not the type of person that likes not having a lot to do, so I didn’t feel as fulfilled … And then I deployed to Iraq as one of my last tours where I had the opportunity to do a Lieutenant’s job. At that point, I realized that I was limited in responsibility because of my grade. Having that opportunity to do the Lt.’s job made me feel confident that I could do the job.
Q: What is different about leading Marines as an enlisted Marine compared to an officer?
A: There are a lot of things that are very similar. You have to be engaged and passionate. You have to care about the Marines and what they’re doing. But, the approach of how you want to get your point across and how you want to mentor is different. As an officer, at least the [way I was mentored], you have to remain poised, calm and be the voice of reason when a situation is chaotic. As an enlisted Marine, that’s also true but you get to be a little more emotional and more invested.
Q: How has your leadership developed throughout your career?
A: In the Marine Corps, you are given [many] opportunities. If you want it, it’s there for you as long as you work for it. The Marine Corps can put you in situations where you can develop as a leader. I think that even someone who may not be identified as a great leader is better than what you would see [outside of the military] because we are well-rounded and can learn from each other. We also get to see people make mistakes before us. You take the best from everyone that you see and leave the rest that doesn’t really mesh with what you believe in. It allows you to not let [your own] experience be your best teacher. It’s not like you start from scratch. There’s probably someone who’s been [in your situation] that can help you. We just keep looking for ways to approve. That’s how I have developed as a leader, just being humble enough to accept those lessons and mentorship from those that have been around longer than I have.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: I try to create an atmosphere where everyone can be successful. If I’m watching out for the Marines they’ll be that much more inclined to watch out for me, essentially creating a little family environment. But you have to make it so the people you’re working with actually care more about your success than their own. That’s very true when you have a unit with high esprit de corps and are going to be there for each other when things get tough. [I tell them that] we’re going to spend a lot of time together, we’re going to be away from our families but we’re going to make the best of it. I try to be open minded in my approach; I like a lot of input from everyone down to the youngest Marine in my section. It makes them all feel a part of it. Making them understand what we need to do makes them work harder.
Q: What do you expect out of your Marines?
A: Regardless of what we have going on, what day it is, I want them to put forth a max effort and give their best for that day. I think that’s the most you can ask for. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to be perfect. They’re going to make mistakes. But if they give me an honest effort, I can live with that. Effort is what I love to see. I think I can deal with anything else that comes along as long as I’m getting effort.
Q: Was there a moment in your career that impacted your leadership the most?
A: In Iraq, I realized that getting the Marines to buy in, trust you and work because they want to support you had much more of an impact that other ways I had tried before, which was more of an aggressive approach. It was more “my way or the highway.” I realized in Iraq that, especially in a combat environment, folks need to rely on each other. I was a lot more patient, understanding and tolerant of things. I realized that essentially chewing out someone or being very forceful can make you lose Marines. I realized that there were generation differences; some Marines that were younger than me didn’t quite see the world the way that I saw it. The thing that was keeping me from being the leader I wanted to be was myself. I just had to put forth that effort. Through trial and error, I was able to become the leader I believe I am today, which is a lot more open and willing to be tolerant and patient.
Q: Have you always been a leader?
A: I think I have. But the question is how good of a leader. I probably wasn’t a good leader prior to the Marine Corps because of my approach to it and thinking that I knew everything. I wasn’t as receptive. I worked really hard to move past that and become the leader I wanted to be.
Q: What advice do you wish you had at the beginning of your career?
A: Think about the reason you’re doing things and the long term consequences. I don’t think I always did that. In the short term, I got what I wanted. Marines will do what you say and they’re going to be respectful. But I didn’t know I was tearing down my credibility by doing that and I didn’t realize what that did to our morale. I would go back and tell myself, “Make sure it’s worth it. Is the juice worth the squeeze?” I always looked after my Marines but I didn’t always do things for the right purpose or reasons. Thankfully I’ve worked past that.
Q: What advice do you have for younger Marines?
A: Leadership is different for everybody. But if you’re genuine and you’re doing things for the right reasons, I think you can discover the best way to be effective. Find out what works for you, and go from there.